Alexander Pope (1688)
It was on this date, May 21, 1688, that the English essayist, critic, satirist and poet Alexander Pope was born in London. The son of a Catholic convert, and in spite of the anti-Catholic prejudice of the time, Pope got an exemplary education, and could read Latin, Greek, Italian and French by age 17. His first major work, An Essay on Criticism, he published in 1711, when he was 23: it included the famous line “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In the next 15 years he published The Rape of the Lock (1714) and brilliant translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1720-1726). Pope became one of the brightest lights of the Enlightenment.
By the time he published his Essay on Man (1733), Pope had abandoned Catholicism, and begun associating with skeptics such as Lord Bolingbroke and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. It is in the Essay on Man that we find proof of Pope’s Deism, particularly in the couplet, “Know thou thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man” and “For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; / He can’t be wrong whose life is in the right” (l.303). In the same poem you will also find, “Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, / But looks through Nature up to Nature’s God” (l.331).
Pope had contracted tuberculosis in 1700, complicated by Pott Disease (tuberculous spondylitis) which caused the TB to collapse his spine. He also suffered from asthma and headaches. He stood only 4ft 6in tall and wore a stiffened canvas spine support. His deformed back, a constant target for critics in his literary battles—Pope was called a “hunchbacked toad”—kept his riposte pen sharp.
Pope’s wicked wit skewered critics and bad writers alike: “While pensive poets painful vigils keep, / Sleepless themselves to give their readers sleep.” And yet he was temperate in an age of heavy drinking and drug use, as well as kind and generous to friends—among whom he counted Jonathan Swift, whom he helped with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels.
In 1738 Pope published a Deistic “Universal Prayer,” in which he voices sentiments no Catholic would utter:
What Conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do;
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heav’n pursue.
What blessings thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives;
T’ enjoy is to obey.
Although Pope is described by one biographer as “a Deist believing in a future state,” the Catholic Encyclopedia claims him for one of the faithful. It seems that before he died, on 30 May 1744, at age 56, Pope “willingly yielded to the representations of a Catholic friend that he should see a priest. It was noticed by those about him that after he had received the last sacraments his frame of mind was very peaceable.” What those around the dying poet really noticed was Pope saying about those last rites, “I do not suppose that it is essential, but it will look all right.” A true Catholic would consider them very essential!
In an earlier age, a Deist of Pope’s beliefs would have been tried and either burned or hanged for impiety. Today, no longer having the power to do that, the Catholic Church lovingly takes him into its arms—so long at it can call him a “Catholic” poet. He was better than that: it was Alexander Pope who wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.